Scenes From A Marriage: A Review

There is a brilliant passage in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which the Ramsay’s house—against the backdrop of the horrific clamor of The Great War—remains oblivious to the chaos of man-made destruction, slowly giving in to the pace and rhythms of nature. It came to my mind every time I pressed “cancel autoplay” while binge-watching Scenes From a Marriage, just to keep looking at the final shots of hustling ants, thawing snow, leaves rustling under the tiny paws of squirrels as the final credits rolled.

Onscreen, a conflict unfolded of a different kind. With strange fascination, bordering almost on sadistic pleasure, I gazed at the progressive dissolving of a family unit, no longer solid and successful as the first scene would have us all believe. Minutes into the first episode, an excruciatingly polite PhD student asks a clean-cut middle-class couple a series of somewhat nosy questions as part of her research. Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) sits back, relaxed, boasting his theories on the pragmatics of monogamy; Mira (Jessica Chastain), meanwhile, scratches her forearm, forcing a fake smile. Something’s off, this much we can tell even without having read the IMBD synopsis, and the student can tell as well, giving Mira a probing look.

But why our curiosity? Why this deep need to peek through the window of somebody else’s house to witness yet another mundane calamity of divorce? In his famous opening to Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that, although all happy families are pretty much the same, the unhappy ones each face their predicament in their own particular way.

This doesn’t seem true. Obviously, suffering makes far better artwork material than bliss. But the ways in which we suffer and render that suffering are no less scripted than those of joy. This is perhaps the intent behind the beginning of each episode: we see the actors arrive on set, with crew members rushing by, cameras rolling, final makeup touch-ups being made. We are shown clearly that this is all pretense—we are reminded of it each time (five times in one binging session, in my case)—that the anguish we see is scripted. And yet, it all seems no less raw, no less real in the slightest. Hypnotized, I kept watching others’ wounds being inflicted and re-opened, because doing so feels like scratching an itch that’s much closer to home.

Chastain and Isaac’s quintuple feat of acting skills is not just a tale of a particularly messy divorce; it is also, perhaps most importantly, a story about how hard it is to let go—of the people we love, yes; but also of the people we used to be when that love was less complicated; and—perhaps most subtly and interestingly—of the objects that surrounded us while we loved the people we loved in this less complicated way. And why is the last one so hard, one can’t help but wonder, seeing Mira in the last-but-one episode, making a fuss about not getting a couch, just after professing her nonchalance to material objects as a sign of maturity and liberation superior to her husband’s? Or listening in on a phone conversation she has with her daughter while waiting for the movers, the little girl obsessing over the boxfuls of dolls she left behind. Or watching Jonathan admit to his ex-wife, long after the breakup, that driving past their old house has become an obsession of his. Of course, we could dismiss all these worries as mere excuses, ways the characters try to distract themselves from something more important, more poignant. But are they, really? Is the poignancy of a forsaken couch not powerful enough? Why can’t it be about things—the props, the décor of good times past?

This fondness for things is perhaps most obvious in the final episode, where the long-divorced couple decides to rent their old house as an Airbnb. Unable to resist this urge to peep into other people’s lives and play house in their former home, when they step in to the ruins of their former life, now tastefully furnished by their successors, a sense of unease sets in: the awkwardness of physically occupying the space once so familiar that is no longer theirs. But then, the mood changes. There is a strange comfort in knowing that the things you had desperately hoped for just didn’t work out. Perhaps because the gloom over them not having lasted dims in the relief of knowing that there’s no need to prove anybody wrong anymore—no need to try to make it last. Walking into that space, once so meaningfully laden and now empty—not even haunted, just vacant—you realize that there can be no coming back. The space, now changed beyond recognition, is no longer your own. This realization might make you feel nostalgic, like Jonathan, or even angry, like Mira, but eventually both of these feelings give way to the relief that this newly found space “is what it is, and is not what is not.”

Scenes From a Marriage tells a story about how desperately we hold on to things when the mirages of bygone feelings attack us with confusing force. It’s not just that petty grievances over objects can become our only way of venting frustration far too powerful to be put into words. It’s also about how we seek comfort in them; how we try to take shelter in their concreteness against the onslaught of the inevitable albeit unforeseen cataclysms of which—just like Jonathan—we perceive ourselves as innocent victims. Perhaps only to discover, like he eventually did, that our illusions of innocence and moral superiority over the ones who hurt us are just one more thing too difficult to let go of. Only then do we find out that the writing had been there all along, on the walls of the house we had been trying to put up precariously, against all odds. And when the props are taken down and the scenery has been changed, much like the protagonists of Scenes from a Marriage, at least we can rest assured that no one could tell us we didn’t try. And this, I would argue, is the ultimate pull of such dramas. It’s nice to sit back, relax, and watch somebody else do the trying for a change. It’s not that we want them to fail—it’s just that watching them inevitably do so in the end can make us feel less alone with failings of our own.

Maria Swiatkowska

Maria Świątkowska is a PhD candidate in literary studies living in Cracow. She works as a translator and cultural manager of literary events and education. She loves taking long walks and pretending that people on podcasts are actually her friends.